Personal Development: Leveraging Anger
I don't get angry often. Perhaps a couple of times a year. I may get irritated but not irate. Slightly moody but rarely mad. Day-to-day I exist in an even-keeled state — never too excitable.
But when I am provoked it's akin to a bull in a china shop. Though I'm not an astrology enthusiast, as an April-born there's something to be said about the feisty spirit of the Taurus who quickly snaps out of its docile state when a red flag is waved.
This weekend I became angry because of an institution that disrespected me and violated my trust, but didn't have the competence or self-awareness to understand why. My first reaction was complete indignation. Then I calmed down and considered simply overlooking it. Ultimately, I decided it was a wonderful opportunity to practice putting my anger to good use.
I'm not an anger management expert, and there have been times in the past when this emotion has gotten the best of me. I can only speak to a process I've experimented with that allows me to control and direct it towards more favorable outcomes. It seems when malleable anger can be an excellent ally. Here's how:
1. Don't ignore it
I don't accept the advice that trying to diffuse anger is effective. Until my mid-twenties this was my main tactic and it would always backfire. Sure, you may take the edge off in the moment but it's only temporary relief. Down the line those emotions have a tendency to build up and resurface when not thoroughly addressed.
So profess your anger and call it for what it is (whether or not the circumstances warrant it, you should not deny your feelings). The simple act of owning means you are being realistic and that's the best state of mind for moving through the rest of the process.
2. Don't succumb to it
This is easier said than done which is why step 1 is so important. If you can't even recognize or accept the emotional state you are in, then you definitely won't be able to control impulse decisions, words, and actions.
After owning your feelings, find the least harmful way to vent. Instead of writing that angry email and sending it, write it then save it to your drafts. Instead of snapping on your partner to his or her face, go to a private room and unleash your wrath ... at the wall.
Again, don't suppress but vent in a way that won't do any damage (to yourself or others) until you can get back to a more rational state. Release all that built up tension in a controlled environment. But don't downplay or forget what comes out of this bitch session. You'll need to revisit this in a later step.
3. Sleep on it
Now it's time to create some distance between you and the incident that spurred your outrage. Let some time past before you reopen the case and think about the best way to react. Even for the situations that can't be realistically revisited (like having a rundown with a stranger you'll never see again) it's still important to emotionally step away from the event and return to it later when you can think clearly.
After being emotionally disrupted you need time to get back to equilibrium. Everything from your heart rate and blood pressure to your thoughts are off kilter. If you aren't careful this could spill over into other areas of your life. Don't allow one isolated situation to define your mood and determine the outcome of your day. Step away. Let it go for a sufficient period of time.
4. Reconsider it
It typically takes me a good night's sleep and a full 24 hours to be in the position to return to something that so thoroughly pissed me off — enough time to have almost forgotten about the situation. But don't drop it because this is the personal development phase. You'll not only more effectively address this particular situation, you'll learn from it and strengthen your ability to deal with future frustrations.
Go back to all your secret rants and raves in step 3. Now consider, what actually needs to be said or done vs. what should be discarded because it won't improve the outcomes for you or anyone else involved? What needs to be communicated to the other party (if possible) regarding their offensive behavior, but also what wrong did you commit? What have you learned from all of this?
There's a lot of truth that bubbles up and out of us when we're in an agitated state. Find that truth then deliver it via constructive feedback to the offending party — but also to yourself.
5. React when ready
With a better handle on your emotions and a clear course of action you're almost ready to approach the individual, institution, or situation. But, don't feel compelled to rush into this. You might still desire to sit on it for a bit longer. Or perhaps call a friend who can provide support as well as a more unbiased perspective.
Consider a few potential scenarios that may come out of your reaction (there's no guarantee it will work out in your favor). If you feel sufficiently empowered to handle these different scenarios, move forward. No matter the result, it is sure to be better than what would have ensued if you allowed rage to cloud sound judgment.
Seneca, the ancient philosopher, would not necessarily agree with my approach. In his eyes it would be best to not allow situations to get you upset in the first place. I see his point which is why I mingle with Stoicism so that I can, in most cases, refrain from falling into anger's trap.
However, as evident in my own life, there are still those rare situations that arise and throw you off guard. These are the situations that can do the most damage if you don't have a set of tools you can use to navigate out of that tricky terrain.
So yes, avoid anger as best you can. But if one day you inevitably fall short it doesn't mean you have to be a victim. Knowing how to use anger as an apparatus will be your best defense and you'll come out stronger in the aftermath.
Image of model Sophie Gerber by photography duo Ben and Zie.